Archive for September, 2016

Race and Baseball in the 1920s—With a Mystery As Well

The Babe Ruth Deception, by David O. Stewart, (Kensington), 304 pages, release date 27 September, 2016

David O. Stewart, author of The Babe Ruth Deception, is a constitutional lawyer, historian, and novelist, which means he’s got a pretty interesting body of knowledge to draw upon when working in any of these fields. The Babe Ruth Deception is his third Fraser and Cook novel, though it’s the first one I’ve read. Fraser is Dr. Jamie Fraser, a wealthy medical researcher and physician married to a Broadway producer. Cook is Speed Cook, who played in the major leagues before they were segregated and is now a promoter of Negro baseball. The pair make for an unlikely team. Between them they’ve got an interesting body of knowledge to draw upon—just like the author himself.

The Babe Ruth Deception is set during and after the 1919 Chicago Black Sox investigation. There’s a new commissioner of baseball, former judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who is determined to uncover any remaining corruption in the game. This is where Babe Ruth comes in: the Commissioner is now investigating the 1918 World Series in which Ruth played. Ruth has secrets he doesn’t want uncovered and seeks help from Fraser—the two men live in the same luxury apartment building. Fraser brings in Cook because of his knowledge of baseball. They face mobsters, who happen are unhappy investors in a film starring the Babe and produced by Fraser’s wife. They also face government investigators. And then there’s the bootlegging…

The mystery here is interesting, but the novel’s strongest point is the relationships among its characters. Fraser shares the racist attitudes of his time, and his individual respect for Cook is counterbalanced by a sense of paternalism and distrust toward the Negro community at large. When it turns out that Fraser’s daughter and Cook’s son are dating and plan to marry, neither Fraser nor Cook (nor either of their wives) is pleased. Fraser imagines his daughter becoming a social outcast; Cook imagines his son becoming the target of a lynch mob. A reader may pick up the novel for the puzzle it offers or for the pleasure of a glimpse of Ruth as imagined by a capable writer—but it’s the genuine tension among characters that propels this story.


September 27 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Flavors of Life

Umami, by Laia Jufresa, translated by Sophie Hughes, (Oneworld Publications), 240 pages, release date 13 September, 2016

I am deeply grateful for publishers like Oneworld that are offering contemporary international fiction in translation. There’s a special sort of bibliophilic treat in sharing literature’s now from another country.

Umami may seem like an unlikely title for a recent work of fiction set in Mexico City. For a Japanese novel? Maybe. For a cookbook? Yes, that’s been done. But Umami is exactly the right title for this novel, a fact that becomes clearer and clearer as one reads.

The novel’s characters live in a Mexico City mews owned by a widowed professor of Agriculture, the man who introduced the concept of umami to Mexico. He’s named the five small houses surrounding the mews after the five flavors: sour, salty, sweet, bitter, and unmami—the house he lives in. As the names of their homes might suggest, this little community has seen its share of both joy and loss. The Professor mourns his wife. Teenaged Ana—and the rest of her family—mourn the death of her younger sister Luz. Ana’s best friend misses the mother who abandoned her years ago and who appears briefly and unexpectedly before disappearing yet again. These are characters simultaneously familiar and new—and their newness springs not just from their cultural location, but also from Laia Jufresa’s ability to create surprising, yet satisfying personalities.

The novel is narrated from multiple perspectives, which adds to the richness of Jufresa’s characterizations. Each key moment in the novel happens in more than one way, and readers have the pleasurable puzzle of weaving together a reality from these different threads.

When you want a surprising, detail-rich novel with broad emotional range, Umami will offer just the literary meal you’re looking for.

September 13 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Adventures with Produce

Dandelion and Quince: Exploring the Wild World of Unusual Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs, by Michelle McKenzie, (Roost Books), 336 pages, release date 2 August, 2016

Michelle McKenzie’s Dandelion and Quince is a great book for adventurous cooks—or for cooks aspiring to adventure who have access to a good farmers’ market. Working your way through the 150+ recipes in Dandelion and Quince will introduce you to all sorts of new flavors. Not just figs, but fig leaves. And gooseberries, nettles, sunchokes, and burdock. McKenzie’s recipes are detailed,  but she also urges experimentation: learn the different flavor profiles of these new ingredients, then have fun seeing what combinations you can come up with. You’ll find many new kinds of delicious.

September 02 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »